Keatts Happy With Wolfpack Improvement

Brett Friedlander

Other than winning the game -- something that was almost a foregone conclusion before it even started against an opponent that lost to Longwood last week -- Coach Kevin Keatts had several specific goals in mind for his NC State basketball team against St. Francis of Brooklyn on Saturday.

Although it took a full half for his team to finally find it's rhythm, in the end, the Wolfpack accomplished most of what it set out to in a 95-64 victory at historic Reynolds Coliseum.

C.J. Bryce led the way with 22 points and 11 rebounds while the inside duo of Manny Bates and D.J. Funderburk combined for another big game as State turned up its defensive pressure over the final 20 minutes to improve to 3-1 on the young season.

Here's what Keatts, who broke out his red blazer for the occasion, had to say about the effort when all was said and done:

"We did some really good things tonight. When I look at the stat sheet, I didn't realize this, we had 60 points in the paint. I thought we shared the ball. I didn't like us at halftime. I thought we gave up too many offensive rebounds. We were in a great position, but that being said, we didn't block back."

But it was good to see us start to play a little bit better. That's a team I envisioned we could switch presses (against) and give some different looks. We were able to turn those guys over 20 times and got nine steals. I think we're getting better. I thought we got better from the FIU game to this game right here."

Whether it was the early starting time or the caliber of the opponent, State was somewhat laxidasical in a first half that saw the smaller Terriers outrebound the Wolfpack 21-19 and score 11 of their 34 points on second chance opportunities. 

That all changed when the teams came back to the court from halftime and the Wolfpack turned up the defensive heat.

Pressing with much more agressiveness, it forced forced five turnovers -- with three steals -- during the first four minutes of the half, forcing St. Francis to call timeout to slow a 14-3 run. 

It didn't help.

State kept the pressure on, took much better advantage of its superior size on the way to outscoring the Terriers 51-30 over the final 20 minutes. That includes a 20-0 edge in points off turnovers and a much better 9-2 advantage in second half points, thanks to a 29-18 overall advantage on the glass.

So what did Keatts say to light a spark under his players? Not as much as it might seem, according to point guard Markell Johnson.

"He just really came in and told us what we needed to do, that was to pick up the intensity, play harder and things like that. He came in and told us they were playing harder than us, so we wanted to go out in the second half and leave it all out there."

Just because Keatts didn't give a firey halftime speech doesn't mean that voices weren't raised in the locker room.

"I could hear my assistant coaches yelling at them about rebounding, so I figured I wouldn't come in there and do it. So I went the opposite direction and talked about coming out after halftime with energy. I figured they didn't need to hear that again from the head coach, because every assistant coach to a man, yelled at them about blocking out."

In addition to the improved rebounding and invigorated defense, the Wolfpack checked off another of its coaches pregame boxes by improving its inside play on the offensive end of the court.

As Keatts mentioned, State scored 60 points in the paint against the Terriers. Twenty-nine of those points came from the duo of freshman Manny Bates and newly reinstated junior D.J. Funderburk.

The two big men also combined for 10 rebounds and three blocked shots while going 12 of 18 from the floor -- a stat line that would garner All-ACC consideration if compiled by one player.

Keatts even experimented by playing Bates (12 points, three rebounds, two blocks) and Funderburk (17 points, seven rebounds, 1 block) on the floor at the same time for a stretch in the first half. It's an alignment the coach said he might use more once fellow big Danny Dixon returns from a foot injury that has forced him to miss the past two games.

"When I look at our center position, I'm happy with it. Manny Bates has made D.J. Funderburk a better shot blocker ... because now he knows that in order to play he's got to protect the paint. But both of those guys are good. We've got one guy who can play inside-out and Manny is as good of a rim protector as there is in college basketball. As both of those guys get more comfortable and D.J. gets back in shape and Manny gets more experience, I really like our center position."

Keatts likes what he's getting out of redshirt senior C.J. Bryce even more. In addition to his contributions on the score sheet, Keatts believes that the transfer who came to State with him from UNC Wilmington is rapidly developing into a forceful leader on the court.

"He's playing good basketball and he's playing good basketball because he's doing it in every different way. ... A lot of times when a transfer comes in, they don't know what to say. It's not really their team because they're coming in from another university. But he and I have talked about taking some ownership in NC State now. I think he's starting to embrace those type of things."

If there was one negative to Saturday's performance it was Johnson's continued shooting woes. The preseason All-ACC selection scored nine points and had nine assists, along with three steals, but he was just 4 of 13 from the floor while missing all four of his 3-point attempts.

For the season, he's made just eight of his 35 field goal attempts (22.8 percent) and is 2 of 17 from beyond the arc (11.7 percent). Keatts said he believes the shooting slump is related to the ankle injury that forced Johnson to miss the season opener against Georgia Tech.

Neither the coach or player are concerned about the situation, saying that Johnson will eventually work things out.

If nothing else, his shooting will give State something on which to improve when it plays again Tuesday night against Alcorn State.

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